James’s Musings

thoughts, photography, and geeky stuff
from an unrelentingly curious Silicon Valley entrepreneur

Last month, I posted what turned out to be the most popular post I’ve written in years about a topic many people would consider not too terribly fascinating (or thus popular): APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces, the machine-to-machine connection protocols used by one piece of software to talk to another. “It’s the API, Stupid! Or How to Crowdsource Your App Ecosystem” turned out to be both popular and somewhat predictive of later events. In short order the tech universe brought us a series of completely contradictory development in API World, but I was distracted with the birth of my second child, so here we are, a month or so later, catching up.

First, what was the big API news (until Friday of last week): Oracle v. Google, in which Oracle, the acquirer of the Sun’s Java intellectual property including its copyrights and patents, contended that Google’s implementation of functionality compatible with the Java APIs constituted (a) patent infringement; (b) copyright infringement; or © both. The tech world should be grateful that it was Judge Alsup, a programmer, Harvard Law School (and Kennedy School) grad, and erstwhile clerk to a US Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, who presided over the case. We’re fortunate because Judge Alsup had both enough savvy to let the jury reach a verdict on copyright infringement and because then (after letting the jury return) had enough domain knowledge to rule the APIs were not copyrightable in the first place:

So long as the specific code used to implement a method is different, anyone is free under the Copyright Act to write his or her own code to carry out exactly the same function or specification of any methods used in the Java API. It does not matter that the declaration or method header lines are identical.

Under the rules of Java, they must be identical to declare a method specifying the same functionality — even when the implementation is different. When there is only one way to express an idea or function, then everyone is free to do so and no one can monopolize that expression. And, while the Android method and class names could have been different from the names of their counterparts in Java and still have worked, copyright protection never extends to names or short phrases as a matter of law. (( Order Re: Copyrightability of Certain Replicated Elements of the Java Application Programming Interface, Case 3: 10-cv-03561-WHA, document 1202, filed May 31, 2012. ))

Judge Alsup has drawn the bright line between compatibility and duplication that the industry has been tiptoeing around for years. Writing software that works with someone else’s software? Always been perfectly fine. Writing software that mimics the behavior of someone else’s software? Fine, so long as you don’t copy their implementation, as confirmed by Judge Alsup. Translation: open market for competition.

…until you have to actually use someone’s API. Which brings up to last week’s big Twitter dustup. Twitter continues to ratchet down the acceptable uses of their API, and instead of litigating, they’re simply cutting off users whose implementations they either don’t like or have grown beyond – including, notably, LinkedIn’s, as they became evident last Friday. This isn’t the first time Twitter has taken aim at the developers who have created its much-vaunted app ecosystem. Just a year ago, Twitter spent $40 million to acquire Tweetdeck, developed of an excellent (and eponymous) Twitter client, and in the process overtly directed developers not to attempt to compete with them on client applications. They didn’t turn anyone off that time, but they certainly began to put a fence around their API. The most recent changes Twitter made came with more wood behind the bat: they turned off their partnership with LinkedIn on what appeared to be pretty short notice – thus further entrenching their position that they would control their API at all costs, including some bad press.

It seems the Cloudiverse anticipated Judge Alsup’s ruling by giving API owners the ultimate trump card: the power to shut off users whose activities they disagree with. If those users are individuals, there is certainly no recourse. If they are larger companies…there is still no recourse. Possession remains nine tenths of the law–especially when your API acts as the gateway to your platform, and you possess both. Twitter isn’t the only tech tabloid star to tussle about APIs recently: just yesterday, word got out that Facebook was shutting down the APIs they had promised to support when they face.com announced it was being acquired in June. The Twitterverse was rapidly filled with developers facing API-apocalypse:

So Judge Alsup looses the dogs of competition and the Cloudiverse responds with its own, possession-trumps-all rebuttal. These are interesting times indeed to observe the API World. Enjoy – and pass the popcorn, please.

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It’s the API, Stupid! How to Crowdsource Your App Ecosystem

May 6, 2012
APIs Are Cool.  Who Knew?

In the ’90s, everyone knew that BizDev was the key to success in Silicon Valley. What will be this decade’s BizDev? The API…. Twitter was propelled to early success by leveraging a huge community of developers virtually none of whom were actually employed at Twitter. How did they do

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The World Just Changed — On SOPA, Susan G. Komen, and a 1979 Prediction

Thumbnail image for The World Just Changed — On SOPA, Susan G. Komen, and a 1979 Prediction February 3, 2012

When I was five or six, my parents, who have made a life of rescuing lonesome books from bookstores and giving them good homes, brought home one such foundling for their son, a book about the future, appropriately titled Future Cities: Homes and Living into the 21st Century (World of

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Coding is Literacy

January 23, 2012

As a proud grew-up-with-the-Commodore-64… type, I’ve always considered coding part of my DNA. (To be precise, “programming” has always been part of my DNA. The term “coding” is a neologism of sorts, but these days I have to self-identify by it, lest I somehow become, despite my thirtysomething creds, “an

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Pizza Night Interruptus: On Emergency Response Times

September 3, 2011

Pizza Night
Friday nights are reserved for family pizza night…. Although no startup exec is too surprised when business intrudes on a family ritual, none of us could have expected the matter of emergency services response times would come crashing — quite literally — into our Friday night.
…Interruptus

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Watching Cairo from Riyadh, and other reflections on Egypt from Saudi Arabia

February 12, 2011

I seem to have a habit of experiencing important geo-political events from what, at least for me, represent unlikely (if not exotic) locales. Two years ago last month I watched the United States inaugurate its first African American president from behind the barbed wires and concrete bollards protecting my hotel …

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Tucson = Islamabad? (or Extremism Exists in America, Too)

January 8, 2011

By now, you have heard the news. A gunman opens fire on a public figure in violent repudiation of that public figure’s beliefs. The public figure is shot. Extremists mark another victory. Think I’m writing about the today’s horrific attack in Tucson, Arizona…? And happy that the public figure,

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Facebook Fight: 12 Billion Apples and Oranges

December 31, 2010

Miguel Helft’s article (“Twins’ Facebook Fight Rages On”)… in today’s New York Times recounts the ongoing saga of the lawsuit brought by Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, the identical twin Harvard graduates who have alleged that Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from them. Unfortunately, the article also perpetuates a

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Germany is the new AIG (and what Justin Bieber has to do with it)

December 5, 2010

I’ve got a great new investment for you. You’ll love it. We’re going to bundle up a bunch of bad debt from BBB– …borrowers who basically can’t borrow another cent, mix it up with some insurance guarantees, and then present it to Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s. The rating agencies

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